14 March 2013

Hungry Planet - Bhutan

For today's detailed diet study I chose this Bhutanese family from Hungry Planet.

Please view their PICTURE here.

After my "Hungry Planet" posts (Japan and India) I received a few comments like this:
"There are people who have heart disease on a high-fat diet, so meat and fat can be the cause of chronic diseases. Carbohydrates are healthy and those who are overweight might have other problems and not the carbohydrate content of their diet." 
So I chose a family living in Bhutan as an example of a high-carbohydrate diet and living in relative health. However, as you will see, it is not black and white: high-fat diet is healthy, high-carbohydrate is unhealthy. There are a few things to consider when choosing a healthy diet.

The kind of carbohydrates
Investigators around the world found that no matter what the primitive diet was (based on plant food, or on almost exclusively animal sources) they were relatively free of chronic diseases (Japanese, Native Americans, the Inuit, India, Africa). In primitive diets, the carbohydrates consumed were whole grains, roots, vegetables, legumes, fruits, etc. There were no refined carbohydrates such as white flour, white rice, pasta etc. It also important to note that sugar and alcohol were not part of the diet in the quantities we are consuming today. 

The hormone insulin
As today's modern diet is loaded with easily absorbed carbohydrates and sugar, our insulin levels are chronically high. During our time on this planet, we did not adapt to these chronically high levels of insulin in our bloodstream. High insulin levels are the cause of fat accumulation, leading to insulin resistance, in turn leading to diabetes. And if the risk of contracting other chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease is higher in diabetics, then high insulin levels are also the cause of these other diseases.

Dietary fat 
Fat is a very important component of the diet. Without it, the cells will not be able to function properly. Now, I do not advise anyone to sit down and eat a big bowl of whale blubber with a spoon, but I think it should be consumed as much our body requires, desires. If I had to cut out something from someone's diet, it would be sugar and refined carbohydrates, and not fat.

Bottom line
Whatever makes our insulin levels low, will also lower the risk of contracting chronic diseases. So how to lower insulin levels?
  • Exercise will help burn the glucose (sugar) in our blood. So the insulin secreted by the pancreas will be less for a person who does daily exercise, than with a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Fiber will only help slow down the absorption of carbohydrate, but not lower the amount of glucose in our bloodstream. So we will still have the same amount of glucose, but the absorption will take longer.
  • Dietary fat has not effect on insulin levels. So if insulin is lower, our fat accumulation is also slowed down.

Some people will do well on whole grains, others won't. I don't. Grains contain anti-nutrients, depleting the body from important minerals, especially calcium. The interesting fact is that all vitamin and mineral deficiency studies have been conducted on populations with high grain consumption, and not on populations with a higher proportion of animal food in their diet, simply because deficiencies did not appear in them.
Anthropologists around the world reported that the appearance of agriculture led to health decline: bones and skull became smaller, and chronic diseases appeared with high-grain consumption. We were not only dying younger, but sicker (based on the research done by anthropologist J. Lawrence Angel).

Anecdotal evidence
When people say: "But there is so and so, smoking and eating bread, and in his nineties." or "So and so ate a lot of meat and died of heart attack at the age of 50." To me these are anecdotal evidences and do not prove that a high fat diet is unhealthy. There are always other things to consider:
  • Alcohol, sugar, refined carbohydrates consumption
  • People in their nineties, were probably born between the two wars, when very few people had access to sugar, alcohol, white bread and such luxury items. So it was more than difficult to develop insulin resistance or diabetes.
  • I also know people who eat a lot of meat and are overweight and unhealthy, but their carbohydrates consumption is also very high.
I prefer to see the numbers (epidemiological studies and clinical trials rather than a few odd examples): if native populations had only a few cases of cancer or diabetes out of 10,000, versus 30% in today's modern population, then there must be something going on with our lifestyle. I have not seen an epidemiological study or clinical trial where a high sugar and refined carbohydrate consumption led to a lower incidence of chronic diseases. I wish I could find one, at least we could eat as much nutella as we wanted.

My opinion about a healthy diet is still these 2 things:
  1. Sugar and refined carbohydrates should not be part of the diet.
  2. Animal food with the fat should be consumed.

Let's get back to our relatively healthy Bhutanese family of 13!, consuming a high-carbohydrate diet. 

These are the proportions of food consumed (3.39 kg per person per week, a third of the amount consumed by the Indian family).

  • 75.5% starchy food (90% of it whole red rice)
  •   0% sweet food!
  •   1.5% meat, eggs
  •   1.5% dairy
  •   5% fruits
  • 16.5% vegetables (leafy greens, chilies)
Roughly 1 litre of milk per person, per week. No alcohol is consumed.

As you can see:
  • By necessity and not by choice, the food quantity consumed is less compared to other more modern families. Small food quantities, even if it contains mainly starches, will not lead to chronically elevated insulin levels.
  • The starchy food is unprocessed (mainly red rice), it contains a lot of fiber.
  • No sugar and alcohol are consumed.
  • They are subsistence farmers, it means that they work hard for their food. They "exercise" several hours a day.
A few interesting facts about this family:
  • Their village (Shingkhey, you can't find it on Google maps) is composed of a dozen 3 floor homes. The ground floor is used for animals, People live on the second floor, all three generations together. The third floor is used to store food: grains, dried meat, chilies, etc.
  • They are Buddhist, so they do not kill animals for food. But, if a cow dies by accident, they will eat it. "When we eat meat, we'll eat it until it's gone" says Nalim (family matriarch). 
  • A typical breakfast: whole chilies, cheese, onion, chili powder, salt all mixed, eaten with red rice. Their daily drink is tea with butter and salt. Enjoy!
Tea with butter and salt

1 comment:

  1. I'm enjoying these post 'Hungry Planet'! I would like to create a link to these, but I don't see the possibility from your settings. Take care.